Review: Nidhogg

Nidhogg might have just hit Steam, but it has already been around the block a few times, snapping up awards at trade shows over the years. Some gamers were able to play it months and even years before it arrived on everyone’s favorite digital distributor. Now that it’s out, players can finally see what the fuss was all about – and if the the drawn out hype was worth it.

First, an introduction is in order. Developer Messhof first started touring the game around (and winning contests) in 2010. Although it is not the only fencing game in existence, it is certainly part of a rare class of titles. Pairing the fairly unique concept with fast play and multiplayer just seemed like the next logical steps. Now that Nidhogg is finally out, there is not only a multiplayer mode but a single player journey against a series of increasingly-difficult opponents.

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Whichever mode you play, the beautifully simple gameplay shines through. Your pixelated fencer has only a foil (sword) to defend against the enemy. Thrusting, parrying, and even throwing the sword are some of the moves you’ll learn first. But even though it seems incredibly simple, Nidhogg slowly reveals layers of difficulty the more time one spends with it. Sometimes it’s due to seeing the AI (or another player) pull off an awesome “trick”. Other times, you’ll just discover something on accident while fighting wildly. Learning effective strategies and skills comes with time and a fair bit of losses.

Like more typical fighting games, this can be played at a speedy pace or with slow precision. It mostly depends on the situations players get wedged in, the skill of opponents, and personal play style. Of course, with friends, it’s likely that everything will get hectic quite fast. Local multiplayer mode is an excellent way to play as real players always trump AI. This is especially true here because most of the single player fights give the AI specific attitudes/attacks that they rarely diverge from. Once you know what it is, there’s little difficulty in exploiting the weakness.

Getting friends together to experience Nidhogg has to be one of the best modern “local” experiences in a long time. Players can battle it out one on one in single matches, or pass controllers around in a tournament mode. No matter the case, the screams and laughter that will most certainly ensue are worth the price of admission. Those who aren’t able to play against others in person can get their multiplayer itch satisfied online.

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As of right now, however, online is imperfectly implemented. Matchmaking works well and can set you up with a mostly lag-free fencing bout thanks to the quickly growing player base. Some folks seem keen to exit losing matches but they’re not common yet. The main issue with online mode is that it can be hard to play against your own friends. There are varying reports showing users being able to invite friends, while others are simply unable to. I fall into the latter category. Sure, most of the strangers put up great fights, but it’s almost always more fun to play with a buddy.

Nidhogg’s greatest asset happens to be its biggest downfall. Playing the game can easily transform into obsessively studying it and seeking to improve your own skills, but none of this can happen if you don’t find reason to continue playing. Fighting against others is that reason for me, and it would work so much better if I had a reliable link to friends. With strangers, I could care less if they see me fail. Those in the same boat as me will find their adoration of the game quickly dry up. It’s a tremendous shame.

Even if you feel this way, at least it’s still possible to admire the visual and audio design. Graphically, characters are incredibly simplistic pixel renderings plastered against weirdly colored locales. The whole game has a very dreamy vibe, and it stands out tremendously against other pixelated titles. The dynamic audio by Daedelus is similarly distinctive, and might even rival Hotline Miami in the “strange, but cool” soundtrack department.

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Closing Comments:

Nidhogg is a polarizing game. Experiencing it the way it’s meant to be played (via local multiplayer) is a fantastically fun event. Without that, it’s easy to pick at the ways in which the game feels small. Outside of the nuanced fighting mechanics, there is little to keep players coming back. For some people, this will be enough to more than justify the price. For others, it will seem a squandered investment. I certainly like Nidhogg, but don’t expect to fall head over heels for it any time soon.
score3.5
Platform: PC